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EU/Russia: Agreement On Summit Agenda Undermined By Differences Over Substance

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Tomorrow's summit in Rome between the European Union and Russia is being hailed by both sides as an important milestone in a quickly advancing relationship. Although the very agenda of the summit is no longer the subject of bitter disagreements -- as has often been the case in the past -- agreement on what to discuss does not necessarily mean there is agreement on the substance. The priorities outlined by EU officials at a pre-summit press briefing in Brussels yesterday contain little that is likely to meet with Moscow's quick approval.

Brussels, 5 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The two-hour meeting in Rome tomorrow is meant to be a twice-yearly highlight of what both the European Union and Russia describe as one of their most important strategic relationships.

The Russian delegation, headed by President Vladimir Putin, will come face to face with an EU team consisting of the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi; the EU's security policy chief, Javier Solana; and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who represents the bloc's current presidency.

The highlight of the agenda is a discussion on four common "spaces" that are to form the backbone of a long-term EU-Russia rapprochement -- a common economic space, a common space for internal security, another for external security, and yet another for science, research, and education.

However, EU officials say, a joint concept has been agreed only on the common economic space. What is still missing is a "road map" providing for practical measures to bring about the convergence of legislation and standards, as well as trade liberalization.

Prospects for a quick "road map," however, have grown dimmer in recent weeks in light of the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the top executive of the Russian oil giant Yukos.

Diego de Ojeda, a commission spokesman on external affairs, said yesterday the EU views Russia's handling of the Yukos case as a "test" that will determine the short-term fate of the common-economic-space project.

"[The common economic space] can only be achieved in reality if we find common ground or if we do in practice share some of the common values that we preach -- such as the rule of law, but not only the rule of law. The rule of law incorporates a number of material concepts, such as that the law be applied in a proportional, objective and fair manner, and I stress the three [principles] -- proportional, objective and fair," de Ojeda said. "The way, as I've said earlier, the way in which this case -- which remains an internal Russian case -- has been conducted so far has prompted a number of reactions in Russia, including by the markets, that are worrying. And that would, could threaten the process we're trying to achieve with Russia in trying to build a common economic space."

However, it is the common space for internal security that is likely to provide the most contentious element on tomorrow's agenda. Whereas the EU is interested in gradually establishing closer links between EU and Russian law-enforcement agencies, Russia's overriding goal is the attainment of a visa-free regime.

For the EU, visa freedom remains a "long-term" issue. Gerhard Lohan, a high-ranking official in the European Commission's External Relations Directorate-General, said yesterday he rejected Russia's request for a clear timetable for the abolition of visas. He said Russia must first establish the "basic conditions" to make this possible.

Among the key prerequisites, the EU wants Russia to sign a readmission agreement committing both sides to agree to the return of illegal immigrants.

De Ojeda said yesterday this is only one of a number of measures Russia must take to convince the EU it adequately controls its borders. "The readmission agreement, the way we have it, launching negotiations on the readmission agreement was part of the deal that we made on Kaliningrad [last autumn]," de Ojeda said. "In addition to that, the readmission agreement is a must if we want to make progress on joint border management and better border control, which in turn is a prerequisite for us to being able to facilitate border transit with Russia in due course."

Among other issues, the EU will urge Russia to sign and ratify the still missing border treaties with Estonia and Latvia.

A key point on the summit's agenda is enlargement. Russia has a number of concerns, of which the fate of the Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia after accession has received the most attention in public.

Commission officials said yesterday the EU position in Rome remains strong. They say the Russian minorities in the two countries enjoy adequate civil rights and there is no linguistic discrimination, although the "situation can always be improved."

The commission's Lohan reiterated the long-standing EU position that the situation of the minorities can only improve once Estonia and Latvia join the EU. "We consider the future existence of a Russian-speaking minority inside the EU as a positive element. We want their integration to be moving forward," Lohan said. "It's important, and for example, there is a considerable amount of support going into this inside the new member states concerned."

He said the situation of the Russian minorities -- although it "may not be perfect" -- has improved considerably and is "far from being as serious as the Russian side claims," adding that EU-Russia relations "should not be held hostage to it."

The situation of Russian minorities form one element in Russia's claim that the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) currently underpinning EU-Russia relations cannot automatically be extended to the new member states. In addition, Russia has also asked for compensation for trade losses it says it will incur as a result of EU enlargement.

The EU, on the other hand, continues to demand an "automatic" extension of the PCA and has said it will not hold any supplementary negotiations to consider Russian demands.

Privately, officials say that if Moscow does not give way on the issue, the EU may eventually have to take the most serious course and revoke the PCA. Cooperation on the basis of the current PCA, which only covers the present 15 member states, is said to be legally impossible once the EU expands to 25 members.

The EU also will raise the situation in Chechnya. De Ojeda said yesterday the EU will once again convey to Russia its concerns over continuing human rights abuses and persisting obstacles to access for humanitarian aid agencies.

"What we would like to come out of this summit [is] clearly an improvement in the situation of human rights in the Chechen Republic," de Ojeda said. "We would like an improvement in practice of the conditions that our humanitarian personnel operate in Chechnya and Ingushetia for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. And we would like to hear from the Russian authorities [about] a number of initiatives they might be taking so that the political process under way in Chechnya results, or manages, or succeeds in gathering a consensus from the majority of the Chechen population, which is what ultimately will be the factor defining its success."

Transdniester and the ongoing constitutional debate in Moldova is another key regional concern for the EU. De Ojeda said yesterday the EU will ask Russia to meet the commitments it undertook at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Istanbul summit in 1999 to remove both its forces and remaining ammunition from Transdniester. He said Russia also will be told it "could and should do more" to push for a political settlement in Transdniester.

However, although de Ojeda said the conflict remains an "important problem," he distanced the bloc from suggestions the EU could soon be sending peacekeepers to Moldova. "There is, for the time being, no plan whatsoever to send EU peacekeeping troops or contingent to Transdniestr. If and when a permanent peace settlement is reached -- and we hope it will be sooner, rather than later -- then, of course, the question might become pertinent and the EU might be willing to make a contribution," de Ojeda said.
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